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Cornish Rex cat. Image by Korona Lacasse and used under a Creative Commons license.
Dreams Of Hypoallergenic Cats By One Who Is Allergic In Order To Connect To The Natural World That Is At Times Lost In Our Modern World

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By Stacey Graber
Special for Modern Times Magazine

July 7, 2015 — I do not have cats: allergies forbid it. And yet recently, I have been, somewhat obsessively, touring websites for those purebred cats that are touted to be “hypoallergenic.” Some, like the Siberian, earn this reputation for supposedly producing less of the Fel d 1 protein, the allergy-producing instigator in bodily secretions behind most reactions.

And then there is the variety called the Rex (Devon and Cornish) that, due to a genetic mutation, possesses a hair-type like a poodle that will not shed excessively. The aristocratic breeders contend against each other for customers in a business that is far more lucrative than one might imagine, considering that one of these kittens might cost anywhere from $1,000 to $1,800 or higher, with illustrious pedigree papers.

This might seem foolish, considering that one can pick up a perfectly respectable cat for $40 at the local shelter and perhaps, through a combination of immunotherapy, a pocketful of Zyrtec, and a HEPA filter, manage to make it work.

These are the dreams of the allergy-ridden, that there will someday be a cat with which they might cohabitate, see eye-to-eye, and rediscover the animal quality of life that seems lost in a contemporary existence entirely mediated, as Baudrillard observed, by technological simulations of life (e.g., computer dating, automatons, 3D printing, and simulation games).

The cat resists co-optation into the stock imagery comprising the postmodern landscape; its eyes reflect a depth, originality, and inscrutability that seem shocking. They are not copies of anything and, even when their image is reproduced (e.g., the Grumpy Cat meme, lolcats, and Argus posters featuring kittens dangling in space beside the caption: “Hang in There!”), the real mocks the insipid qualities of the facsimile from the periphery. In the sense that Benjamin admired in connection with rare editions of books, the enigmatic aura of cat-ness is always retained. And maybe that is why, in the days before the e-reader, digital library, and the single, big-box book dealer, there were quaint bookshops in which could be seen a silent and erudite cat, lazing among the volumes or else perusing the shelves with a significant air.

Of course, one might rightly argue that the commercial breeding of cats is a simulation and that the category of cat has been incorporated into the legions of reproductions. Breeding is a perverse form of cloning that isn’t recognized as such because it can be done in a suburban kitchen as opposed to (exclusively) within the Cronenberg-styled, technologic tomb of the laboratory. And in this way, cats are initiated into the mythos of science fiction.

Along similar lines, and unaccountably under the spell of cats, I returned recently to Poe’s story “The Black Cat.” I read it to my son thinking that it would appeal to his 10-year-old sense of the morbid and satisfy the current fetish in literacy education for lexical complexity. He listened patiently and puzzled at the close for the Meaning which is a by-product of the dull pragmatism of STEM. One doesn’t read Poe for the Meaning, but rather the aesthetic experience. Still, I knew that he expected an answer and so I launched into the elf-like chant: “The cat came back, he wouldn’t stay away—The cat came back, the very next day.” If it means anything, it might be something close to that.

Currently I am engaged in furtive, electronic conversations with breeders of hypoallergenic cats in all territories ranging the American northeast. I am dream-shopping, the way that people test drive cars they do not possess the money to buy, or gaze wistfully at the size 0 on the rack at Banana Republic.

My genes conspire against me. The allergist’s needle barely penetrates my massive, upper-arm, an adipose throw-back to the shtetl and an ethnic group that had little relationship with house-pets; memories mostly of plastic-covered furniture inhospitable to the sensuality of pet ownership. The indoors was never a seamless gateway to the outdoors, and so I didn’t know what I was missing until I moved to rural America and became jealous of the untroubled marriage between people and animals. And what used to disgust me, the detritus of shed animal hair on clothing, now signifies as Orpheus’ calling card.

Stacy Graber is an Assistant Professor of English at Youngstown State University. Her areas of interest include popular culture, pedagogy, critical theory, and semiotics.
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